As the natural wine movement goes mainstream, people are demanding more transparency and accountability from their favorite wine brands. It’s now common to hear consumers ask about a winery’s eco credentials, production practices, and farming philosophy: Does said winery spray its vines with harmful pesticides and herbicides? What kind of equipment is used to till the soil and harvest the grapes? Are chemicals added in the cellar?
What’s noticeably absent from many of these conversations is the same level of scrutiny toward labor practices—that is, whether workers are paid fairly; given adequate job training, equipment and housing; provided social benefits such as healthcare; and afforded equal opportunities.
Here at VIVANT, we believe in a holistic view of sustainable winemaking that puts the safety, wellbeing, and livelihood of workers first. We thoroughly vet our producers to ensure our values align and make certain there’s no history of workplace abuse and exploitation.
To understand why fair labor practices are important, consider the following: by one estimate, a quarter of Europe’s agricultural labor is illegal or undocumented. Without legal status or protection, workers are vulnerable to exploitation, in some extreme cases being paid only in alcohol. According to a 2014 study, in Italy alone, “About 400,000 workers are estimated to be at risk of exploitation by caporalato,”—Italy’s agricultural mafia—“of which 80% are migrants.”
In an industry as fragmented as wine, consumers are faced with a sea of options, many of which seem indistinguishable from one another. A less-savvy buyer might reach for the $9 bottle of Chardonnay over the $25 bottle, not questioning why or how the one is much cheaper than the other (or what corners have been cut to allow for such competitive pricing).
And because wine is a luxury product, there’s never been much pressure on producers to abide by certain standards or be totally transparent with consumers. Writes Eric Asimov in the New York Times: “Romanticizing wine as a natural, pastoral product often results in omitting the human labor that goes into its creation.”
In recent decades, a wave of developments has laid the groundwork for the rise of worker exploitation in the wine industry. According to a recent study, some of the contributing factors include the rise of international wine production, climate-related disasters, the 2008 stock market crash, and the deregulation of the EU wine sector. States the report: “These developments demanded new strategies to cut costs and increase international competitiveness, in particular for the (small) less favored grape growing areas at risk of further depression and possible abandonment.”
In the absence of universal standards and sweeping fair-trade certifications, the most impactful choice consumers can currently make is to buy organic and biodynamic wine. While doing so is by no means a guarantee your wine comes from a farm that supports fair and dignified working conditions (unless you shop VIVANT), it is a step in the right direction. For one, producers of organic and biodynamic wines are naturally more vocal about their values, which corresponds to more transparency and accountability. Further, with the climate crisis being one of the issues contributing to worker exploitation, organic and biodynamic winemaking—which is tied to more naturally resilient vines—is one of the best defense the wine industry has against extreme weather patterns.
To learn why organic and biodynamic wine is better for the environment, save a spot in this VIVANT Experience.
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